Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons know what it takes to win in the regular season.

When it comes to the playoffs, that's another story.

Perhaps no team faced a greater burden going into this postseason than the Falcons (13-3), the NFC's top-seeded squad for the second time in three years. They've yet to win a playoff game under the current trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff - one-and-done in all three appearances going back to the 2008 season, the last two not even close.

Not surprisingly, the players keep insisting the previous years don't matter; they're only looking forward to Sunday's divisional game with the streaking Seattle Seahawks (12-5).

But the senior member of the team, center Todd McClure, concedes there will probably be some additional pressure when the Falcons take the field at the Georgia Dome.

That makes a quick start crucial to Atlanta's hopes.

``We've been disappointed a few times,'' said McClure, who's been with the Falcons for 13 years. ``I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump.''

The Falcons have gone 56-24 in the regular season since Dimitroff and Smith took over in 2008 and drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick - more wins than any team during that span except New England (60-20). But the significance of five straight winning seasons, two division titles and, now, a fourth trip to the playoffs has been undermined by the lack of success in January.

It wasn't that big a deal when Atlanta, after surprisingly making the playoffs as a wild card one year after the Michael Vick debacle, lost to Arizona in the desert 30-24.

But the loss two years ago was a stunner, the No. 1-seeded Falcons - who, like this team, went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye - getting blown out at home in the divisional round by sixth-seeded Green Bay 48-21.

Then came last year, when Atlanta went 10-6 but was viewed as an underachieving squad, a perception that proved factual in the playoffs when the Falcons' high-powered but inconsistent offense was completely shut down by the New York Giants, who romped to a 24-2 victory on their way to capturing the Super Bowl title.

Carrying around all that baggage, the Falcons can't help but be a little skittish about facing a team that might be hotter than anyone in the league. The Seahawks have won six straight games, including last week's 24-14 victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in the opening round of the playoffs.

``We can't get too tight,'' McClure said Wednesday. ``There's going to be some added pressure, I'm sure. I'm not going to say there's not. But if we come out, start fast of both sides of ball, some of that will die down. Then we can just go out and play football.''

Seattle coach Pete Carroll shrugged off the notion that his team has some sort of psychological edge on the Falcons.

``This has nothing to do with years past or story lines,'' he said. ``We're playing a terrific team, with a terrific coach and a terrific quarterback, and we're on the road. It's a monstrous task.''

Much of the burden for turning things around in Atlanta falls on Ryan, who set numerous franchise passing records and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time.

That said, his career numbers in the regular season are much better than his postseason stats. He's yet to throw for 200 yards in a playoff game. He's tossed more interceptions (four) than touchdowns passes (three), including a crucial pick that was returned for a touchdown right before halftime in that loss to the Packers. His passer rating is about 20 points lower in the postseason.

Ryan certainly tries to learn from his mistakes, but he won't spend much time talking about what happened before this season.

``I don't worry about it, I don't think about it,'' he said. ``My focus is for this locker room and for these guys and this coaching staff, making sure we're all together. We worked really hard during the course of the offseason and through training camp to give ourselves an opportunity to be playing at this time of year. We want to play our best football. That's really the only thing I'm worried about.''

Ryan certainly has plenty of the offensive weapons, with a pair of Pro Bowlers (receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez) plus another receiver who probably should've made it (Roddy White). While the running game has tailed off dramatically, the Falcons are much more capable of hitting big plays and putting up points in a hurry, a testament to the scheme installed by first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter.

``I'm confident in the guys around me,'' said Ryan, who has completed nearly 69 percent of his throws for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. ``We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me.''

Protecting Ryan has been in an issue in the last three playoff losses, so the onus will be on an often-maligned line to keep the Seahawks out of the backfield - no easy task facing a defense that is willing to stack the line and leave its cornerbacks in single coverage.

But the biggest task for Smith and his coaching staff might be getting the players to have a convenient case of amnesia. He doesn't want them lingering over those last three trips to the playoffs.

``We're a much more mature team because of our experiences,'' Smith said. ``We feel very good about we've accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we've been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way we've played through the first season.''

Now comes the second season.

The one that really matters.

Notes: DE John Abraham (left ankle) and S William Moore (hamstring) were limited in practice Wednesday, but Smith said he expects both to play on Sunday. Moore hasn't played since a Nov. 29 victory over New Orleans. ... The only players to miss practice were a pair of backup defensive backs, rookie S Charles Mitchell (calf) and CB Christopher Owens (hamstring).

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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3 bold predictions for Game 6: Can the Caps close out the Leafs?

3 bold predictions for Game 6: Can the Caps close out the Leafs?

The Caps will look to put the finishing touch on their series with the Toronto Maple Leafs with a Game 6 win and prevent a return to trip to Verizon Center (7 p.m., CSN). Here are three bold predictions for Game 6.

1. Toronto will score in the third period

Facing elimination, Toronto will show an extra level of desperation in Game 6 and that will manifest itself especially in the third period. When the Leafs are pushing the pace in the third, the Caps have struggled this series. It’s hard to see the Leafs not come out guns blazing in the third period Sunday considering what’s at stake.

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2. Someone will take a penalty against Alex Ovechkin

The Leafs made clear after Game 5 that getting under Ovechkin’s skin was a priority for them this series. Obviously Nazem Kadri succeeded in Game 5 with his monstrous hip check to the knee and Ovechkin looked more focused on getting to Kadri the rest of the game than getting to the net. Barry Trotz will have reminded the captain of what the ultimate goal is for this game, but that won’t stop Toronto from trying to get him angry again. A young team will take things too far and it will cost someone two minutes.

3. If Toronto leads after the first period, the series is going 7 games

If there is one thing the Caps have figured out this series, it is how to start games. Washington has scored first in each of the past three games, it’s just everything that happens after that seems to give them trouble. I expect a big push from the Maple Leafs at the start of the game and at the end. If they dominate Washington in the first 20 minutes and the final 20 minutes, I do not see the Caps being able to do enough in the middle to get the win.

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MLB Power Rankings: The Beltway gets well represented

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MLB Power Rankings: The Beltway gets well represented

It's a great time to live near the Beltway, which is probably the first time in the highway/parking lot's history that people can say that. 20 games into the season, and both the Nationals and Orioles find themselves among the league's elite. Baltimore's dominance has been more surprising, given that their starting pitching was supposed to be terrible and is instead just average. That doesn't sound encouraging, but go ask an Orioles' fan if, before the season, they'd have taken a year of average starting pitching. The Nats look like a real contender once again, and Ryan Zimmerman's resurgence would be the most talked about part of this Nats season if it wasn't overshadowed by Bryce Harper's resurgence. How have the other 28 teams fared through the early part of the season? To the rankings! 

30. ATLANTA BRAVES
The Dansby Swanson Era has gotten off to a rocky start. Some time in the 8-hole might help. 

29. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
What a historically brutal start. At this point, they have to play .600 baseball for the rest of the year to even get to 90 wins. 

28. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Madison Bumgarner is out for two months after injuring himself in one of the most Madison Bumgarner ways possible, so crawling out of the NL West basement is only going to get harder. 

27. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
The Marte suspension was shocking, and now the Pirates have to compete all summer against the Cubs and Cardinals without one of their best outfielders. 

26. SEATTLE MARINERS
James Paxton has looked like an ace, which is great because Felix Hernandez has not. 

25. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
That window sure closed quickly, didn't it?

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE